I Survived the “Death March”
As told by Louis Piéchota
MY PARENTS arrived in northern France with many other Polish miners in 1922. Like most of these immigrants, they were good Catholics. However, when I was about 11 years of age, my father and mother withdrew from the Catholic Church and became Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Zloty Wiek (“Golden Agers”), as the Polish Catholics scornfully called them. That was in 1928. Therefore, since the days of my youth, I have had the joy of sharing with others the “good news” set forth in the Holy Scriptures.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, I had my first taste of pioneering, or full-time preaching. My companions and I—all five of us of Polish origin—spread the Kingdom message in small towns and villages along the coast of Normandy. At that time we used phonographs and recordings of Bible talks in French.
After hostilities broke out in 1939 and the war fever began to mount, hostile people in the village of Arques la Bataille reported us to the police. The villagers had taken our phonographs to be cameras. Since we had a foreign accent, the police thought that we were German spies and so arrested and jailed us in the nearby seaport town of Dieppe. After 24 days of detention, we were paraded through the streets handcuffed to one another and were taken to the courthouse. The hostile crowd wanted to throw us into the harbor. But the judge quickly realized that we were innocent and acquitted us.
Soon after the work of Jehovah’s Witnesses was banned in October 1939, I was again arrested and sentenced to six months in prison, accused of illegally preaching God’s kingdom. Initially, the time was spent in solitary confinement in Béthune jail, without anything to read. Several weeks later, when I thought that I would lose my mind, the prison guard brought me a Bible. How I thanked Jehovah! I memorized hundreds of verses and several entire chapters. These passages were a strengthening aid to me in the days ahead. In fact, even now I can quote texts that I committed to memory in Béthune jail.
In February 1940, I was transferred from Béthune to the Le Vernet camp in the south of France where supposedly “dangerous” aliens were interned by the French authorities.
In the spring of 1941, a German commission came to the camp and requested me. They sent me back to my hometown in the occupied zone of northern France, there to work as a coal miner. Naturally, I used my newfound freedom to preach the good news of God’s kingdom. But when a new Witness was arrested and unwisely told the French police that I had supplied her with Bible literature, I was again arrested and sentenced to 40 days’ imprisonment in Béthune jail.
After my release, I resumed witnessing. While doing so in the little mining town of Calonne-Ricouart, I was arrested for the fourth time and sent back to Béthune jail. There the Germans came to arrest me because I had refused to work extra hours and Sundays in the coal mine to support the Nazi war effort.
A PRISONER IN BELGIUM, HOLLAND AND GERMANY
The Germans transferred me to the Loos Penitentiary, near Lille, and a few weeks later to Saint-Gilles prison, in Brussels, Belgium.
After that, I was imprisoned in the Huy Citadel, near Liège, Belgium, before finally being sent to the S’Hertogenbosch or Vught concentration camp, in the Netherlands. There I became a cipher—7045—and was given a camp uniform with the purple triangle that identified me as a Bibelforscher, or a witness of Jehovah. I was assigned to Block 17-A.
It was indeed difficult for me to get used to marching barefoot in Dutch clogs. My feet were raw with broken blisters. At the slightest stumble, I risked being kicked in the ankles by an SS guard. Soon the skin on my feet thickened and I could march as quickly as the rest.
There were 15 other Witnesses in that camp. We were offered immediate release, provided that we sign a paper abjuring our faith. None of us gave in.
From that concentration camp in the Netherlands we were eventually moved to Germany. Herded like cattle into small freight cars, 80 in each, we were forced to stand for three days and nights without food, water or any means of relieving ourselves. Finally the train reached Oranienburg, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Berlin. We then had to march on the double for 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the Heinkel aircraft factories, with SS dogs biting our heels if we slowed down. We Witnesses managed to keep together.
Shortly afterward we were all transferred to the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp. There, my purple triangle was accompanied by a new number: 98827.
LIFE IN SACHSENHAUSEN
As we entered Sachsenhausen, I felt the full irony of the slogan that SS chief Himmler had ordered to be displayed in huge letters inside the camp. It read: “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes free). What hypocrisy! Of course, we had a freedom the Nazis never knew, the freedom that Christian truth brings. (John 8:31, 32) In all other respects, life in Sachsenhausen can be summed up as slave labor, slow starvation, humiliation and degradation.
The Nazis were out to break Jehovah’s Witnesses or to kill them. They did kill many. But that was a moral defeat for the Nazis, and a victory of faith and integrity for the Witnesses who died.
As for the rest of us, far from being crushed spiritually, we did not allow the degrading conditions to prevent us from respecting high spiritual values. Take the case of Brother Kurt Pape. He was ordered to join a kommando (work crew) laboring at an arms factory. He refused, stating that he had been waging Christian warfare without carnal weapons for 16 years and that he was not now going to blemish his integrity. He was, of course, risking his life by refusing. Surprisingly, the camp commander allowed him to do other work. On another occasion, Brother Pape reprimanded me because I had taken some bread from the camp bakery where I was assigned to work. I did this so that the brothers would have a little more to eat, but he told me it was preferable to be hungry rather than to bring reproach upon Jehovah’s name by being caught as a thief. This greatly impressed me. On Sunday afternoons, I would serve as interpreter for Brother Pape, who had succeeded in arousing interest in the Kingdom message among a group of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners. Yes, Brother Pape was a fine example. Unfortunately, he was killed during an Allied air raid shortly before our liberation.
THE “DEATH MARCH”
By April 1945, the western Allies were pressing in on the Berlin area from the west, and the Russians were advancing from the east. The Nazi leaders studied various means of liquidating the inmates of the concentration camps. But killing off hundreds of thousands of people and disposing of their bodies within a few days without leaving behind any trace of their heinous crimes proved to be too difficult for these fiendish men. So they decided to kill off the sick and march the rest to the nearest seaport, where they would be loaded onto ships that would be taken out to sea and sunk, sending the prisoners to a watery grave.
From Sachsenhausen, we were due to march some 250 kilometers (155 miles) to Lübeck. Departure was scheduled for the night of April 20-21, 1945. The prisoners were first to be assembled by nationality. How thankful to Jehovah we were, therefore, when all Witness prisoners were ordered to assemble in the tailor shop! There were 230 of us, from six different countries. The Witnesses who were sick in the infirmary, occupants of which were to be killed before the evacuation, were saved by brothers at the risk of their lives and were carried to the tailor shop.
Indescribable confusion reigned among the other prisoners. Much stealing went on. As for us, we held an “assembly,” and strengthened one another spiritually. Soon, however, our turn came to begin the long march, supposedly to a reassembly camp but actually to a planned watery death. The various nationalities left in groups of 600 prisoners—first the Czechs, then the Poles, and so forth—some 26,000 in all. The group of Jehovah’s Witnesses was the last to leave. The SS had given us a cart to haul. I learned later that it contained some of the loot the SS had plundered from among the prisoners. They knew Jehovah’s Witnesses would take none of it. That cart turned out to be a blessing, because sick and elderly ones were able to sit on top and rest for a while during the march. When one got his strength back, he would get down and walk and another Witness, too weak to follow, would take his place, and so on throughout the two weeks that the “death march” lasted.
It was in every sense a “death march” because not only was our destination to be a watery grave but death lurked along the way. Any who could not keep up were mercilessly dispatched by an SS bullet. Some 10,700 were to lose their lives that way before the march ended. Yet, through Christian love and solidarity, not one Witness was left on the wayside to be killed by the SS.
The first 50 kilometers (30 miles) were a nightmare. The Russians were so near that we could hear the guns. Our SS taskmasters were scared of falling into the hands of the Soviets. So that first lap, Sachsenhausen to Neuruppin, turned out to be a forced march that lasted 36 hours.
I had started out carrying a few meager belongings. But upon getting more and more tired, I threw away one thing after another until nothing was left but a blanket in which to roll up at night. Most nights we slept outdoors, with just twigs and leaves to keep us from the damp ground. One night, however, I was able to sleep in a barn. Imagine my surprise to find a Vindication book (a Watch Tower publication) hidden in the straw! The following morning our hosts gave us something to eat. But that was exceptional. After that, for days on end we had nothing to eat or drink, except for a few plants we were able to obtain and use to make herb tea at night, when we stopped to sleep. I remember seeing some non-Witness prisoners rush over to the carcass of a horse that had been killed near the road and devour the flesh in spite of the blows of their SS guards, who hit them with their rifle butts.
All this time, the Russians were advancing on one side and the Americans on the other. By April 25, the situation was so confused that our SS guards no longer knew where the Soviets or the U.S. troops were. So they ordered the whole column of prisoners to camp in a wooded area for four days. While there, we ate nettles, roots and tree bark. This delay proved to be providential, for had they kept us marching, we would have reached Lübeck before the German army collapsed and would have ended up at the bottom of Lübeck Bay.
THE LAST NIGHT
On April 29, the SS decided to move the prisoners on toward Lübeck. They hoped to get us there before the Russian and American forces joined up. The march continued for several days, and by that time we were approaching Schwerin, a city located some 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Lübeck. Once again, the SS ordered us to hide in the woods. It turned out to be our last night of captivity. But what a night!
The Russians and the Americans were closing in on the remnants of the German forces and shells were whistling over our heads from both sides. An SS officer advised us to walk on unguarded to the American lines, about six kilometers (4 miles) away. But we were suspicious of this and, after having prayed to Jehovah for guidance, we finally decided to spend the night in the woods. We later learned that those prisoners who had accepted this officer’s proposal and had tried to get through to the American lines had been shot down by the SS. About 1,000 of them died that night. How thankful we were for Jehovah’s protection!
However, that last night in Crivitz Wood was anything but peaceful. As the fighting grew nearer, our SS guards got panicky. Some of them slipped away into the night, while others hid their weapons and uniforms, donning the striped garb taken from dead prisoners. Those that were recognized were shot by prisoners who had found the weapons left behind. The confusion was indescribable! Men were running hither and thither and bullets and shells were flying everywhere. But we Witnesses kept together and weathered the storm under Jehovah’s protecting hand until the next morning.
We expressed our gratitude to Jehovah in a Resolution adopted on May 3, 1945. We had marched some 200 kilometers (124 miles) in 12 days. Of the 26,000 prisoners who left the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on that “death march,” barely more than 15,000 survived. Yet every last one of the 230 Witnesses who had left the camp came through that ordeal alive. What a wonderful deliverance!
KEEPING ON THE MARCH
On May 5, 1945, I made contact with the American forces, and on May 21, I arrived back home in Harnes, northern France. I had survived the “death march,” and certainly shared David’s feelings expressed in Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk in the valley of deep shadow, I fear nothing bad, for you are with me; your rod and your staff are the things that comfort me.”
The “death march” from Sachsenhausen proved to be just one lap in the journey through the present system of things on toward the goal of life. Many have been my joys in sharing the “good news” since that time. Even as Jehovah allowed me to survive that terrible march, my prayer is that, with my wife and three children, I will keep on walking on the narrow road to life, avoiding pitfalls to the right and to the left.—Matt. 7:13, 14; Isa. 30:20, 21.
[Map on page 9]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
ROAD TO DEATH
April 20, 21, 1945
Evacuation of SACHSENHAUSEN CAMP and of HEINKEL work crews